On the Deadly Trail: the Ampatuan Massacre (1)

Part I: Wrong Time, Wrong Place
1st of three parts
By Germelina A. Lacorte / MindaNews

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/22 Nov) — On the evening of November 22, 2009, Santos Gatchalian of the Metro Gazette sent a text message to his wife telling her he would send money the next day after their coverage in Maguindanao. He failed to deliver his promise. He was among 32 journalists in a convoy to Maguindanao’s capital town of Shariff Aguak which was flagged down by armed men along the national highway in Ampatuan town the next day.

It would take three more days before a final count could be made: 57 bodies retrieved; one reported missing. Three more days later, the dentures of the 58th victim, Reynaldo “Bebot” Momay, were found. A year later, the victim’s daughter still wonders where her father’s remains are.

Gatchalian, a former radio blocktimer, and 31 others from the media joined a convoy of relatives and supporters of Buluan vice mayor Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu on their way to file his certificate of candidacy at the Commission on Elections provincial office in Shariff Aguak. Despite warnings, Mangudadatu decided he would run against Datu Andal “Unsay” Ampatuan Jr., son of three-term governor Datu Andal Ampatuan Sr. who was then mayor of Datu Unsay town.

The convoy did not reach its destination.

Over a hundred heavily armed men blocked its way and massacred all those on board, including five persons in two vehicles who happened to pass the highway at the wrong time.

The manner in which the 58 persons were killed in Sitio Salman, Barangay Masalay in the town named after the Ampatuans, shocked the world. Press freedom watchdog Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) called it not only an attack against the media but an attack against democracy itself because it was carried out to stop a particular candidate from taking part in the elections, an important democratic exercise.

“Never in the history of journalism have the news media suffered such a heavy loss of life in one day,” said the Reporters without Borders in its November 23, 2009 statement, when only 12 bodies of journalists were confirmed. “We have often condemned the culture of impunity and violence in the Philippines, especially Mindanao,” said RSF, conveying its condolences and sympathy to all journalists in the Philippines still in a state of shock at the appalling violence.

“This time, the frenzied violence of thugs working for corrupt politicians had resulted to an incomprehensible bloodbath.”

Impunity at work

When journalist Aquiles Zonio met international media groups 14 days after the massacre, he still appeared gaunt and shaken. On his laptop were images of what remained of the journalists he was with in the morning of November 23. Zonio was one of three journalists who broke away from the convoy and went back to the hotel just a few minutes before the massacre happened.

Zonio is a correspondent of the Philippine Daily Inquirer based in General Santos City. Among the images he kept on his laptop was that of Manila Bulletin’s Alejandro “Bong” Reblando. Only half of Reblando’s face was recognizable. His body was found lying on the front seat of a car at the massacre site. He was the only journalist victim hit by a shotgun at close range.

Zonio and his two other colleagues had been in constant touch with Reblando shortly before the incident. Zonio and company returned to the hotel where they stayed the previous night and was approached by two hotel attendants who told him two men on a motorcycle had earlier come to ask for a list of media people who joined the convoy.

When he heard that men on a motorcycle were already looking for them, Zonio informed his companions and they decided to abort the trip. One of his companions had texted Reblando and the latter even forwarded the message to Zonio. He was expecting Reblando to call off the trip as well. Many times he tried contacting Reblando through his mobile phone but the latter could no longer be reached.

Among the journalist-victims of the massacre, Reblando, the most senior, was aware of possible violence that could happen and had been very insistent on security. Reblando was among those who had requested Major General Alfredo Cayton, the commanding officer of the 6th Infantry Division, for security escort the evening before. But at 5:00 o’clock the next morning, they realized that no security escort was forthcoming.

Zonio had asked the general through a cellular phone conversation how safe it was to travel through the area. Cayton had actually assured him that the area was safe. “Without his assurance, we would never have gone to the area,” he said.

The slaughter that eventually happened shocked him because like himself, the journalists in that convoy had relied on the word of a general. But the general’s word failed them. Zonio said that only minutes before he lost contact with Reblando, Reblando had just texted him about Cayton’s assurance that the area was clear.

How the strengthening of warlords contribute to impunity

In a report, “Amid the fighting, the clan rules Maguindanao,” PCIJ writer Jaileen Jimeno showed how, with blessings from Malacañang, the Ampatuan clan had wielded power in Maguindanao. With the help of their private armies, the Ampatuans practically monopolized political power within the province and effectively imposed the rule of fear and silence in the province. Under this rule, no one can question the Ampatuans; doing so would be a very big risk.

This culture of silence is aptly demonstrated when Joseph Jubelag, a correspondent of Malaya (now with Manila Bulletin), was banned and hunted down in Maguindanao after he published in the national newspaper a series of exposé about an irregularity in the provincial government in 2004.

Jubelag, who received death threats because of the exposé, was among the journalists who joined the convoy on November 23. Aware that he was the only one hunted down by the Ampatuans, he was very uneasy when the convoy moved. Seeing that most of the journalists had been “friendly” with the Ampatuans, Jubelag felt that if violence would erupt, he would surely be singled out because he had long been their target. He immediately informed Zonio that he would set off alone to Shariff Aguak or just wait for the press conference in Buluan town. Zonio decided to go with him.

Jubelag’s decision saved Zonio and another journalist from the gruesome massacre.

What happened in Ampatuan demonstrates that as long as impunity rules in any part of the country, journalists will never feel safe in doing their job. Journalism plays a crucial role to keep citizens informed, because only the relevant and accurate information will enable people to make informed choices and take part in an active and functioning democracy.

But this was non-existent in the province of Maguindanao under the Ampatuans.

Clear and present danger

As long as impunity reigns, journalists can never feel safe doing their job. Journalism requires digging up facts and reporting the truth to keep the public informed. Under the implied social contract between journalists and society, the constitutional guarantee for press freedom that journalists enjoy has been granted to serve the greater good, which is the people’s right to know. As Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel wrote in the “Elements of Journalism,” journalists owe their first loyalty to the public, even beyond the loyalties that bind them to the companies paying their salary.

But perpetrators of injustice would do everything to block the truth and stop anybody from reporting it. The Ampatuan massacre proved that when the people’s rights are being trampled upon by the reign of terror, a journalist’s life is already at risk.

The climate of freedom of the press and freedom of expression is necessary for the press to take its role as watchdog in a democracy; hence, the climate of impunity, which stifles free expression in the provinces, effectively suppresses and prevents the press from doing this watchdog role. There’s an implied warning under the rule of impunity that those who will insist on this watchdog role will be effectively killed and perpetrators can get away with it.

Mike Dobbie, of the International Federation of Journalists-Asia Pacific, noted that what happened in Ampatuan was the result of decades-old impunity. The Southeast Asia Press Alliance also said that even before the massacre, the group had already expressed alarm over the killing of journalists in the Philippines.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) has repeatedly warned that failure to get the masterminds and the perpetrators of the killing will further embolden the killers and put the lives of more journalists in danger.

Knowing that they will not be punished will make it easy for hired killers and powerful politicians to harass journalists whom they consider to be critical of their wrongdoings.

The IFJ’s end of the decade report showed that of the 139 journalist killings worldwide from 2000 to 2009, one third were said to have been “targeted killings done by criminals, religious extremists, political gangsters, trigger-happy soldiers under reckless military command.”

“All are acting under the same impulse to keep their dirty secrets from public scrutiny,” the IFJ reported.

The Ampatuan massacre showed how impunity constitutes a clear and present danger to the lives of journalists. Local media also said that had popular Filipino boxing hero Manny Pacquiao not been in General Santos the day the Ampatuan massacre happened, there would have been more journalists who would have joined the convoy to cover the filing of candidacy of Ampatuan’s political rival. [To be continued.]

(This three-part series is an excerpt from the author’s Masters Project for her MA Journalism at the Asian Center for Journalism at the Ateneo de Manila University.)